Joshua and Jihad: Part II of Joshua, Jesus and Jihad

Is it only the end or purpose of jihad that we want to quibble with Islamic State over, or is it the means as well?

Explosions at Miramar Airshow.jpg
Explosions at Miramar Airshow“. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

To address this part of our two-part series, now addressing ‘Joshua and Jihad’, I will interact with an article by Andrew Shead in Eternity magazine from late last year:

“HOLY WAR: Islamic State & Israel in the Old Testament.” Eternity, November 2014, 19-20. Published by the Bible Society. Also accessible online at

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Jesus and Jihad – part I of II on Joshua, Jesus and Jihad

Heard a great sermon at my parents’ church in Coffs Harbour, in mid-north coast NSW, Australia last week. (Coffs is halfway between Sydney and Brisbane, and a great place for a summer holiday.) It’s actually a rather old-fashioned church in worship style, but I respect the pastor, David Mitchell, and he was on the money last Sunday.

His talk was based on Matthew 27:16-26:

16 At that time they had a well-known prisoner whose name was Jesus Barabbas.
17 So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?”
18 For he knew it was out of self-interest that they had handed Jesus over to him.
19 While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.”
20 But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed.
21 “Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” asked the governor. “Barabbas,” they answered.
22 “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” Pilate asked. They all answered, “Crucify him!”
23 “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”
24 When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!”
25 All the people answered, “His blood is on us and on our children!”
26 Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified. (Matt. 27:16-26 NIV)

In light of the Lindt Cafe hostage drama a couple of weeks prior in Sydney, and then only a few days before he spoke, the shootings at Charlie Hebdo in Paris, David’s angle was to use the text above to help us think about how the Christian should view sacred vigilantes or holy war.

The message was simple. This episode in Jesus’ final trials presents to us alternate ways of advancing a cause: the way of Jesus, and the way of Barabbas. Barabbas is the partisan, the vigilante, the sicarius or dagger bearer. He was willing to kill for the cause and had such kills chalked up already. Were they Romans, or were they Jews who had co-operated with the Romans? It’s funny how the vigilante ends up killing his own people so freely where they are perceived to co-operate with the enemy. They are easier to reach, for one thing.

David admitted with simple honesty that Christians (or Christendom, we might say) had used this approach in the past to try to advance the cause, infamously during the Crusades. But the Crusades did not have good theological justification from the New Testament and specifically from Jesus’ teaching. If you want to run a Christian (military) crusade, you really need to ignore many parts of the New Testament. (Is the Old Testament a different story? Let’s hold that off for the next post.)

The way of Jesus is not the way of the sword. When Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, one of Jesus’ disciples decided it was time for a heroic last stand, and took a swipe at the arresting party with a sword (Matt. 26:51-52; Mark 14:47; Luke 22:49-51).  John’s Gospel alone identifies the wielder as Peter, and he probably wasn’t just aiming to remove the guy’s ear. As a soldier, he made a good fisherman.

Each Gospel reports that Jesus brought this final resistance to an abrupt halt, while casting Jesus’ reply and reasoning rather differently. But Matthew offers the most detail. “All who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matt. 26:52 NIV). Jesus continues there by saying that if he wished to resist his enemies, he would sooner use heavenly troops and weapons. But that was not his purpose in any case. His victory would come ironically by way of abject defeat and death, followed by unexpected return from death.

A spiritual kingdom cannot be won and defended with human weapons (John 18:36), even if its citizens live in a human world. The Crusades were not only barbaric in practice but were theologically ill-conceived. The way of Jesus is not the way of Barabbas. The New Testament defends the secular government’s right to ‘bear the sword’ for purposes of maintaining justice in society, and arguably, for national defence, but it never authorizes the use of force or violent militancy to advance the Christian cause.

Jihad can never be the tool of the disciple of Jesus. The disciple of Jesus never has permission to kill for the cause.

The disciple of Jesus simply has permission to die for the cause. Indeed, where necessary, the obligation so to die.

But if it came to that, would I be willing to die? I hope so. Would I retaliate? I hope not, but when we’re angry, reason takes a back seat. Would I reneg? I don’t know. I hope I would join the great and honoured ranks of the martyrs.

What would you do?

Next post: Joshua and Jihad – part I of II on Joshua, Jesus and Jihad

Blasphemy Laws Ancient and Modern

Sometimes Old Testament narratives can provide striking parallels to social realities in modern traditional societies.

Reading 1 Kings 21, I find that the way Naboth can be removed as an obstacle to land acquisition by Ahab and Jezebel in ancient Israel is by means of a trumped-up blasphemy charge.  Upon the accusation of two witnesses-for-hire, “Naboth has blasphemed God and the king,” Naboth is taken outside the city and stoned to death (1 Kings 21:13).

You might remember hearing a story in the news where something similar has been done recently in a couple of traditional societies, in one case using bricks.  I recently heard a thoroughly researched presentation describing how blasphemy laws in Pakistan have been utilized at an exponentially increasing rate in the last two decades, and at the same time, hardened so that a life sentence has been ruled out as the lenient option.  On conviction, it is death alone.

Aside from the ethics of prosecuting blasphemy with death, which I would propose is already an ugly side of a theocratic society, this sort of law leaves itself open to this kind of vindictive abuse – a way to get even with or get rid of an enemy, or someone refusing to co-operate with one’s own evil plan.  Another fact that came out in the abovementioned presentation was that since the witness cannot repeat the blasphemy without incurring guilt himself or herself, all that is needed is the accusation, without further evidence.

Upright and evenhanded law is a prized possession in any society.  Let none of us take it lightly.

And where righteous law is unenforced, endangered or lost, there is comfort in this passage: “In the place where dogs licked the blood of Naboth, dogs shall lick your blood, even yours” (1 Kings 21:19).  Only notice that this is not achieved by vengeance killing by Naboth’s family.  That way lies neverending conflict.  “”Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord” (Heb. 10:30, from Deut. 32:35).  If we choose to live by the sword, we will die by the sword (Matt. 26:52).  The way of Christ is the way of the yielded sword.


Cybersex and the Sin Superbug

It has been discouraging to hear the news today via BBC channels that the worst of western society has been cultivating an ugly but alluring financial temptation in one eastern society.  Westerners have been paying to watch children in places like Cebu City, Philippines, being sexually abused via webcam, and certain poverty-stricken Filipinos have taken the bait.  It seems to me that wherever accountability structures are light or absent, and many online environments fall into that category, something sinister in human nature seems to flourish like a cancer or a superbug.

I think of superbugs because in my previous occupation as a Baptist pastor of a small country congregation, I knew a lady in our congregation who had a superbug resident in her respiratory membranes.  It was kept under control through drugs; but it could never be eliminated.  It remained imprisoned, as it were, but was ever capable of doing drastic damage if left unsupervised.

There is something like that resident in human nature.  Christian theologians have long talked about what some in modern times have called the ‘sin nature’.  I’m not always happy with how it is described, as if the newborn baby and Hitler at his legendary worst are pretty well on the same level of evil.  That is not how the world that I have witnessed works.  But I don’t see myself as a rosy optimist concerning human nature, and this reported evil does not surprise me.  Whether it be the common person or the high-profile politician, there is a tendency in human nature to indulge baser instincts to the extent that societal pressures permit.  ‘Power corrupts’ precisely because power removes the usual mechanisms of visibility and responsibility.

I am also suspicious that we are better at identifying the besetting sins of other societies than of our own.  Jesus was on to this, was he not, when he said, counter-intuitively, not to judge others in Matthew 7:1-5.  He in theory still allows the appropriateness of judging in verse 5, but points out our ability to see the ‘speck’ in another’s eye while ignoring the log in our own (verse 4).  A French version we have in our home describes the speck aptly – “le brin de paille,” which translates as a ‘bit of straw’.  Racism essentially is this further weakness indulged: we are not only prone to sin, but we’re prone to see the sin of others and not our own.  Racism then attributes sin, or certain sins and faults, to other societies as if inherent to and limited to those societies.  It is simplistic and self-satisfying.  And Jesus would say, it’s a deception.  No-one’s eye is clear, though the size and nature of the intrusive objects might be different for different eyeballs.

Instead of judging, then, there’s forgiving, another counter-intuitive practice for human beings.  Back a little in Matthew 6:12, the Lord’s prayer includes asking the Father to “forgive us the wrongs we have done, as we forgive the wrongs that others have done to us” (Good News Translation, bilingual English/French edition).  I had never noticed it before, but the most famous piece of Christian Scripture there is, the Lord’s Prayer, here acknowledges the universality of human sin, but rules out judging attitudes as the solution.  It’s really because of the universality of the sin superbug that judging isn’t the answer.  In fact, every one of us is forced to pray, “deliver us from (the) Evil (One).

A Thought on Tragedy from Lamentations

Having just finished reading Lamentations, I was reminded of a Hebrew term that points out an element of the experience of personal or national tragedy that western minds can overlook.  The term is ḥerpâ, traditionally translated ‘reproach’, and more recently ‘disgrace’ (NIV, NRSV) or ‘degradation’ (New Jerusalem Bible). It occurs three times in Lamentations, e.g. Lamentations 5:1: “Remember, O LORD, what has befallen us; look, and see our disgrace!” (Lam 5:1 NRS; also 3:30, 61).

This important word brings out the personal loss of face involved in devastating experiences.  We don’t talk about that much in the west, I don’t think, but as we watch Syria tearing itself apart, or consider refugee and migration issues, it’s good to remember that along with the bereavement, loss of employment and income, destruction of communities, and physical harm, hunger and exposure, another element to the suffering is the accompanying sense of dislocation and the destruction of dignity.  Reading Lamentations, this is poignant, as one-time princes see their skin blacken and peel through starvation (4:7-8), and cannibalism creeps in (4:10).  Individuals suffer disgrace, and the city that was one of the great cities of her time, at least within her region (1:1; 2:15) gives passers-by the chills with its horrific destruction.

God have mercy on Damascus, on Aleppo, on Hama.  What if it were Melbourne?  London?  LA?